Jun 2009

The Sunday papers

I read the news today, oh boy…

So sang Neil Young during his Glastonbury encore. I rarely watch festival coverage on TV as it always falls so far short of the actual experience, that I usually end up annoyed rather than uplifted or entertained. Yesterday though, I got completely caught up by The Specials and wound up watching almost their entire set. Thanks to the wonders of modern television, the BBC offered me five screens to choose from. I lingered briefly on each screen (some recorded, some live) to get a flavour of the festival, and I’m clearly showing my age when I confess that The Specials were head and shoulders above the rest. Lily Allen, Lady Gaga, N.E.R.D. and Fleet Foxes all went up against them on the beeb’s interactive coverage. And all seemed somewhat lacking in energy by comparison. A bit lifeless really.

Don’t get me wrong, the crowd seemed to be having a good time at each of the performances, but musically there was just no comparison. Next to songs like Monkey Man, Concrete Jungle, Ghost Town (of course) and a blistering version of A Message to You, Rudy the others just fell flat.

Later, having sat down with a pizza and a DVD (OK, not the edgiest way to spend the Friday night of Glastonbury… I’m pacing myself) I flicked back on the Glastonbury coverage in time to catch the very end of Neil Young’s set. If the encore was in any way characteristic of the entire performance, then I suspect I just missed one of the great Glastonbury shows. Young radically reinterpreted the classic Beatles song, A Day in The Life, turning it into a feedback laden, bass-driven piece of grungey folk-rock. Or something. It was hard to tell exactly what was going on, what with Young having broken every string on his guitar by the time he’d reached about three quarters way through the song. Still he drove it on though, raking the broken strings across the pick-up, the amps, the mics, whatever he could find. All the while stamping on his effects pedals as though he could literally squeeze extra noise from them.

When he finally finished beating the hell out of his guitar with a mic-stand, he strode off stage in the manner of a man looking for a fight. I’d barely had time to utter the words, “Now that’s a real rock star!” before he reappeared to spend about twenty seconds gently tapping on a xylophone before disappearing for good. Incongruous to the end.

Farewell, Mr. Jackson

Of course, despite Glastonbury going on, the big music news of the moment is the death of Michael Jackson. I didn’t really “get into” music until my mid-teens, but Thriller was a huge thing even for me. The video, the songs, the moonwalk, that one white glove… it was more cultural event than album. Did you know that worldwide, Thriller has sold more than twice as many copies as the next highest selling album? It’s sold over 100 million copies. No other record has ever topped 50 million. The popularity of Thriller exists on a whole different level to other records.

And while I rarely play Jackson’s two truly classic records (Thriller and Off the Wall), and while I wouldn’t rate them among my personal favourites, I can nonetheless appreciate the greatness that lurks within. I may be doing the modern music industry a disservice here, but it seems to me that 83% of all records made today — from Beyonce to The Black-Eyed Peas — are faded copies of Thriller. But when Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones and their crew entered the studio in 1982 they were inventing that sound. It was new and exciting, and you can hear that excitement on the record.

I listened to Thriller again yesterday for the first time in a good while. Within 30 seconds of the start of the first track (Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’), it’s only a willful curmudgeon who isn’t having fun (Yeah! Yeah!)

The entire album glides effortlessly along on a series of glorious grooves. Criticisms that it’s “over-produced” or “too smooth” or “too 80s” are — in my view — missing the point entirely. The joy and energy of Thriller isn’t airbrushed out of existence by that highly polished production and arrangement, as happens with almost all of the imitators. Instead, it’s amplified and thrown into sharp relief. It’s celebrated.

And that’s how I intend to remember Michael Jackson. The rest of the stuff? The media circus? I’ll let that slide by.

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Jun 2009

The Longest Day

Happy Summer Solstice, y’all.

The Street Performance World Championship is currently on in Dublin, so that’s how I’ll be spending Midsummers Day this year. There’s some good weather forecast and the park in Merrion Square is a lovely place to spend a sunny day — even without the promise of a free festival. Eight stages and an extremely eclectic line-up. Like any festie, it’ll be hit and miss I’m sure, but I’m also sure that there’ll be some gems to be discovered and — as I say — it’s a nice location to spend a summer afternoon. If you’re in Dublin, why not get down there?

Speaking of festivals, it looks like the weather will be good for Glastonbury this year (if the long-range forecast is to be believed). The line-up is excellent and really makes me wish I’d gotten some tickets. I’m still planning on one last Glastonbury (perhaps next year?) It was one of the most important dates in my calendar for a decade and I always had a blast. Except for the last one. The last time I went to Glastonbury, it was a disaster… both in terms of the weather and from a personal point of view (things were starting to get a bit grim in my life at the time). So I want to return for one last hurrah. End my relationship with Glastonbury Festival on a high note.

My tip for this year, if you’re going to be there, and assuming they don’t clash with one of your favourites — is to check out Lamb on the Jazz/World Stage on Friday afternoon. Always good live.

And of course, if you’re there and don’t make your way to the Pyramid Stage on Sunday night, then you really don’t know what’s good for you…

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Jun 2009

Dublin, statues and Ulysses

I’ve written in the past about the way a city’s statues go some way towards revealing its soul.

And let’s face it, the whole idea of statues is pretty amazing in the first place. Imagine if we encountered a previously undiscovered sub-species of chimpanzee who left intricately carved versions of their ancestors in the places where they gathered. Viewed objectively, it’s a strange thing for an animal to do. It’s a bit like leaving huge signs all over the place with the words “We’re really scared of Death” printed on them. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it.

Still, however you explain it, there’s no question that a place reveals much about itself through its choice of statues. Certainly at the most basic level, the statue is a reassurance to us all. “Death is not the end”, it whispers, “For I am still among you”. But statues of anyone will fulfill that role. What’s revealing is our choice of exactly who we choose to call back from the dead to remain with us.

Take London for instance… it’s big enough and old enough to contain statues of people from all walks of life. Engineers, nurses, scientists, fictional cokeheads, the lot.

But mostly it’s soldiers. Lots and lots of soldiers. Men who excelled at killing people from beyond the city walls, or who were cruelly killed by people from beyond the city walls. And we invite them back to stand silently among us. One of them stands atop a pedestal so high, you can’t really see him clearly.

Here in Dublin, the situation is quite different. There’s plenty of statues to fighters, certainly, but they tend to be rebels and revolutionaries, which alters the message significantly. And they’re equalled in number by poets, musicians and radical socialists. As well as the occasional statue to the ordinary people of the city.

The stone celebration of military conquest that is so ubiquitous on the streets of London (and pretty much every city in a nation that once possessed an empire) is almost entirely absent here in Dublin. This is both a result of, and a further influence upon, the collective psyche of the place. Statues create a positive feedback loop that help solidify a culture.

June 16th

One of Dublin’s most striking statues, of course, greets you from the corner of North Earl Street as you walk up the city’s main thoroughfare — O’Connell Street. There he stands; artist and revolutionary thinker; James Joyce.

James Joyce statue

Many cities celebrate their local artists just as much as Dublin celebrates Joyce of course. But June 16th in Dublin is quite unique. I’d planned on doing the whole “Bloomsday thing” this year — y’know, donning period garb and following in the footsteps of Leopold Bloom’s Great Wander. I’d probably skip the breakfast of offal, but I figure I could make up for it with a couple of extra pints along the way. Sadly the day just crept up on me, and I realised too late that it was this week. Silly me.

To make up for it, though, I have vowed two things. Firstly to re-read Ulysses (the single greatest work of literature in the history of humanity) before June 16th next year, and secondly to make absolutely certain that appropriate clothes are hired for both myself and Citizen S in plenty of time next summer. Anyone else up for it? You’ve got a whole year to plan it. And even if you don’t feel like dressing in a turn of (last) century stylee, it’ll still be a fine day out.

There are sins or (let us call them as the world calls them) evil memories which are hidden away by man in the darkest places of the heart but they abide there and wait. He may suffer their memory to grow dim, let them be as though they had not been and all but persuade himself that they were not or at least were otherwise. Yet a chance word will call them forth suddenly and they will rise up to confront him in the most various circumstances, a vision or a dream, or while timbrel and harp soothe his senses or amid the cool silver tranquility of the evening or at the feast at midnight when he is now filled with wine. Not to insult over him will the vision come as over one that lies under her wrath, not for vengeance to cut off from the living but shrouded in the piteous vesture of the past, silent, remote, reproachful.

James Joyce | Ulysses


— That’s your glorious British navy, says the citizen, that bosses the earth. The fellows that never will be slaves, with the only hereditary chamber on the face of God’s earth and their land in the hands of a dozen gamehogs and cottonball barons. That’s the great empire they boast about of drudges and whipped serfs.
— On which the sun never rises, says Joe.
— And the tragedy of it is, says the citizen, they believe it. The unfortunate yahoos believe it.

James Joyce | Ulysses


Mr. Bloom walked unheeded along his grove by saddened angels, crosses, broken pillars, family vaults, stone hopes praying with upcast eyes, old Ireland’s hearts and hands. More sensible to spend the money on some charity for the living. Pray for the repose of the soul of. Does anybody really? Plant him and have done with him. Like down a coalshoot. Then lump them together to save time. All souls’ day. Twentyseventh I’ll be at his grave. Ten shillings for the gardener. He keeps it free of weeds. Old man himself. Bent down double with his shears clipping. Near death’s door. Who passed away. Who departed this life. As if they did it of their own accord. Got the shove, all of them…

James Joyce | Ulysses

I didn’t search for those passages. Just opened three random pages and got three amazing pieces of writing. There’s not a single page in the 900 that doesn’t crackle with energy, beauty and insight.

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Jun 2009

British National Party: Is the BNP racist?

Is the BNP racist?

This is a brief addendum to the last post, rather than an article in its own right. But I wanted to post it separately for search ranking reasons. It goes without saying that the British National Party (BNP) understand that being publicly labelled as “racist” loses them more votes than it gains. As a result, they do much to avoid the word. They claim they’re simply an “organisation concerned with one community or race”. As such, they insist, the BNP is just like other such organisations (such as the Black Police Officer’s Association, or the Action Group for Irish Youth).

This is, of course, complete nonsense. And in this articleIs the BNP racist? — Matt Wardman explains exactly why.

Is the BNP a racist party? Yes. It is. And don’t let them try to pretend otherwise.

UPDATE (20:23) FlyingRodent makes an excellent point about the BNP.

I hope it’s not too extreme to point out that our granddads’ response to their generation’s Nazis was to bomb them and strafe them from the air; to shoot them with machine guns and rifles; torch them with flamethrowers, incendiaries and white phosphorus; to crush them with tanks, blow them up with grenades and high explosives and so on, and then march their supporters off to prison. I don’t know how people could’ve missed this, since we have well-publicised memorials at which we salute their courage for kicking Nazi arse so righteously, every single year.

Not that I think this would be a reasonable response to the BNP, of course, but it sure puts all this Oooo, we must understand the motivations of poor, misguided racists who consciously vote for Nazi organisations in perspective.

It’s particularly amusing when you consider that lots of the right wing commenters here spend much of their time grousing about a lack of chimpanzoid chest-thumping and ostentatious moral outrage in modern liberalism – yet suddenly, when we’re talking about an openly racist and fascist organisation, we have to understand.

Well, Bollocks

(via PDF)

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Jun 2009

The water through which we swim

Over in the UK, the leader of the far-right BNP, Nick Griffin, was elected to the European parliament. As was another member of his party. On a very low turn-out, over 800,000 British people decided a bunch of thinly-disguised racist thugs were the best people to represent their views. That’s almost a million self-declared cretins.

See, I just have to go with the “easily manipulated idiot” explanation. The idea that so many people could rationally decide to vote for the BNP, in full knowledge of what they truly represent? It’s just too damn depressing. Mind you, we don’t live in a world where the depressing has an inverse relationship with the true.

We are none of us entirely free of prejudice. A wise man once said that “racism is the water through which we all swim”. But the idea is to swim against the current, folks, not get swept along with it. We challenge our racism whenever it appears in us. And we do so not because we’re being oppressed by political correctness, but because ultimately racism lessens us as individuals, it attacks the foundations of the society we live in and it’s no less than a direct assault upon the human soul.

Yeah, you heard me. For whatever the soul may be, whatever you believe it to be, it must surely include the imperative to rise above those blind prejudices that damage us. It is, if it is nothing else, that which inspires us to compassion and empathy. Much of what happens in politics and business… in modern life itself… is a direct assault upon the Sacred. But when people like Nick Griffin are carrying out the assault in such an overt and brazen manner, then we are obliged to challenge it.

The prejudice that lurks within our collective psyche can leak out in any one of us when tempers run high or emotions take control. And we must always be on our guard against that. But to deliberately and with premeditation walk into a polling booth and give voice to it? There’s something wrong there. Those 800,000 voters need to wake up.

This isn’t about the BNP. I still think this will do them damage in the long term as I question their competence and their ability to handle the inevitable internal rifts this will create. It’s about the people who voted for them. Let others try to coax them with promises and warm platitudes. I’m telling them to fricking sort themselves out. To wake up. We live in a profane world. And they are making it that much worse.

A couple of discussions sprang up on the U-Know! message board regarding Griffin’s election. One concerned the recent protest at his public press conference. For those unaware, Griffin was shouted down by a crowd who also threw eggs (personally I was dismayed. None of the eggs appeared to hit him).

I was a little surprised, however, to find this question being asked…

Other than “it’s fun”, which I won’t comment on, what do these people throwing eggs hope to achieve?

Sure, the question is coming from the message-board’s resident Tory, but it represents a theme that I’ve found emerging both in the mainstream media and on blogs. The protest was counter-productive, they say. Or it was hypocritical… restricting the free speech of fascists is surely the tactic of fascism, they say. Let him have his say and he’ll dig his own grave, they say.

They say a lot of things. But they are generally talking shit.

See first thing to point out is that this isn’t really a Free Speech (capital letters) issue. The “right to free speech” is about the freedom to express your views — yes, even reprehensible ones — without fear of prosecution. What it isn’t about, is guaranteeing anyone the right to be the loudest speaker in a given public place. The BNP have the right to stand for election. They have the right to distribute leaflets, publish a web site, hold meetings and so forth.

But when they start to spout their vile garbage in public, then others have the right to express their disgust. To heckle. To shout them down if they see fit. As for what this achieves…? It is a stark message to those 800,000 voters — and to anyone tempted by the rhetoric of fascism — that these views are contemptible. As are those who espouse them. It is a demonstration that those who would give voice to racism will be challenged. A reminder that the rest of us won’t allow this prejudice to gain ground.

Griffin should not be arrested for stating his views. But each time he does so in public, he should be challenged. And each public utterance of racism should be drowned out by a thousand voices in opposition.

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